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Fortress Europe

by Meike Dülffer

The EU is strengthening its external borders. In order to secure the expanded Schengen area, new modern border installations are planned for the EU's eastern boundary, while the EU border protection agency Frontex is operating at Europe's southern limits. How does this external border change Europe?

For most EU citizens the abolition of Europe's internal borders means more freedom of movement. The strengthening of the external borders, on the other hand, has little tangible effect and therefore receives less public attention. But for non-EU-citizens things look rather different, for it is becoming more and more difficult for them to enter the EU at all. The Slovenian newspaper Delo put it in a nutshell on 8 March 2007: "The borders between the countries of the EU are permeable, but its external ones are pretty impermeable."

Spanish soldiers patrol the border between Spain and Marocco.
Photo: AP

Expanding Schengen Eastwards

On 1 January 2008, all the countries (except Cyprus) that joined the EU in 2004 will become part of the Schengen area. When that happens the borders between the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and the old EU will more or less vanish. At the same time the well-guarded external border of the EU will shift from the middle of Europe to the east. It will then divide the EU from its new neighbours – Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and Serbia and Croatia.

The decision to include the new EU countries in the Schengen zone was warmly welcomed in Eastern Europe. The Czech Adam Černý explained why in Hospodarské Noviny on 6 December 2006: "Because the removal of border controls has symbolic value. Only when Czechs, Poles or Slovaks can visit Germany whenever they like will they know they are no longer second-class EU citizens."

Securing the External Border

But for some Eastern European countries securing the EU external border is a challenge. In some places, such as between EU member Slovenia and non-EU member Croatia, the border is disputed. Another sensitive section of the EU's external border is the 97-kilometre-long stretch in the Carpathians between Slovakia and Ukraine. Many illegal immigrants who wish to enter the EU via Eastern Europe choose to cross the border here, Dominic Swire wrote in an article for Transitions Online on 3. August 2007, concluding: "There's little doubt that more professional border guards and high-tech equipment can help stem the flow, but they won't solve the problem."

In Eastern Europe people are becoming more aware that the new Schengen border will keep out not only illegal immigrants but also their eastern neighbours, with whom they have maintained an exchange of people and goods up to now. The news that the fee for a Schengen visa was to be raised from 35 to 60 euros prompted a commentary in the Czech newspaper Hospodarské Noviny: "Tourists, students and entrepreneurs from the states of the former Soviet Union will have to pay this sum, which represents a considerable portion of these people's monthly income, to get into the EU, Luboš Veselý wrote on 18 July 2007, adding: "After the expansion of the Schengen zone a new iron curtain will appear."

Europe's Southern Border

The EU has become difficult to reach for its southern neighbours too. Whereas the West European public is hardly aware of the changes on the EU's eastern borders, their media devote regular attention to immigrants from Africa. Since the establishment of the Schengen zone and the introduction of the regulation allocating responsibility for asylum applications to the first EU country refugees enter, more and more people in search of work are choosing the dangerous route across the Mediterranean.

"Spain is experiencing its greatest avalanche of illegal immigrants in years," the Spanish newspaper El Mundo noted with alarm on 14 August 2006. "Nearly 16,000 illegals have arrived by sea this year from various African countries. The figures are self-explanatory. In July 2005, 860 illegal immigrants landed on the Spanish coastline. This year 3,000 have arrived over the same period..."

The countries affected by the arrival of illegal immigrants often feel they are being left to face the problem alone. As the Spanish journalist Antonio Papell put it in on 1 September 2006 in El Sur: "It is clear that there is no desire to turn the problem of leaky borders into a community issue. Shared perspectives in Europe are so feeble that North Europeans are incapable of seeing that immigrant saturation of Spain concerns them too."


The EU's first response to cries for help of this kind was to make its southern border more secure. The European border protection agency Frontex, established in 2004, was expanded in 2006 and is currently patrolling coastlines in southern Europe.

The southern European press has complained, however, that the EU has been slow to use Frontex more extensively: "The continual flow of African immigrants to the Canary Islands, as well as to Malta and Sicily, constitutes a brutal baptism by fire for the new European agency Frontex," Philippe Ricard commented on 5. September 2006 in the French newspaper Le Monde, adding: "Those in charge of Frontex regret that only a handful of State members –Italy, Portugal, Germany, Finland and France – responded to their appeals to come to the aid of the Spanish authorities."


On the island state of Malta, which acceded to the EU in 2004, the press has repeatedly appealed to the other members of the EU not only to help control the borders but also to absorb their share of immigrants: "Malta... is too small and too densely populated to be able to take more than a minimum number of immigrants. The EU must be convinced that the situation that has emerged over the past two years isn't just a local problem," the Times of Malta wrote on 11 January 2006.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung also called for European solidarity in absorbing refugees on 13 June 2007: "The motto of the EU's refugee policy is: out of sight, out of mind. Those refugees from Africa who do manage to survive often don't get any further than Malta. But the states of Central Europe won't even think about setting quotas for the distribution of these refugees to spread the burden more equally."

A Mediterranean Union

Another political approach currently under discussion for dealing with the problem of illegal border crossings, advocated particularly by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is the creation of a Mediterranean Union. The idea is that by forming an alliance between the southern members of the EU and the countries bordering the Mediterranean to the south, assistance could be given to the immigrants' countries of origin and they could be encouraged to cooperate in preventing illegal immigration.

The Turkish-German author Zafer Senocak, however, expressed scepticism about this idea in the German tageszeitung on 5. June 2007: "North Africa isn't part of Europe but more like a transition zone that is to be armed to stop the flood of immigrants from black Africa. Europe's primary concern is not to export democracy but to secure its territory. This is just a way of repairing the cracks in fortress Europe."

Legal Immigration

Nevertheless there are very few people who would actually advocate the idea of a European fortress designed to keep the outside world out. Europe's low birthrates mean that it needs immigrants, and countries like France, Germany, Denmark, Britain, Italy and Spain are considering adopting a policy of controlled immigration.

In an article in The New York Times on 11 August 2007 Victoria Burnett reported on a Spanish pilot project to allow Senegalese to work in Spain for a year legally, which she saw as pioneering: "As Europe closes its doors to illegal immigration, Spain is opening a small window,…in the hope that by raising the possibility of reaching Spain legally, young Africans will be dissuaded from throwing themselves on the mercy of the Atlantic," Burnett wrote.

Changing Europe's View of Immigration

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe has also discovered that it needs non-European immigrants. Poland, for example, recently signed an agreement to recruit Indian workers, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported on 17 August 2007, quoting the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (OIM) in Geneva, Jean Philippe Chauzy, as saying the states of Europe will have to expect tough competition for non-European labour.

In a similar vein the British newspaper The Guardian advised Europe on 20 April 2006 to fundamentally change its attitude to immigrants: "Europe, that prosperous, democratic and multicultural magnet for so many, should stop demonising migrants and refugees as a problem and rather see them as a solution to its own plummeting birth rates, pensions crises and ageing societies."

Meike Dülffer
Meike Dülffer was an editor for euro|topics. She studied Slavic studies, Eastern European History and Politics. She trained as a journalist at Berliner Zeitung before ...
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Melanie Newton

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